The week I moved into the convent was the week that the sky turned dark with smoke. California was burning at a record-breaking scale, the city of Paradise decimated with untold numbers of lives lost, and here I was, driving toward the fire all the way from New Mexico, in a car loaded two with my possessions and my two dearest friends. It’s always a strange time to move into a convent, as a young Jewish man. Doing so under an apocalyptic sky thick with smoke and ash made it especially so.
After three days of driving we reached the formidable entry gate to the Sisters of Mercy campus in Burlingame, California, climbed the winding driveway past ancient oak trees, and parked in front of the labyrinthine four-story building that would be our home for the next six months—and which had been home for more than sixty years for many of the the Catholic Women Religious who would now be our neighbors.
We were greeted in the parking lot by Mel, the security guard, who smiled wide and offered a few riddle-like stories and at the front desk by Valerie, on the night shift, who assured us that the sisters had prayed away the ghost that used to dwell in the mansion further up the hill. As we began unloading the car, Sister Joan Marie emerged to greet us with hugs, a hearty “welcome home!” and an offer of a bottle of a wine. Mercy hospitality already on full display.
Like many of the 400 orders of Catholic Women Religious in the U.S., the story of the Sisters of Mercy is one of courageous women, profound humility and commitment, and outsized impact.
Heeding the call of their Irish foundress, Catherine Macauley to “be shining lamps giving light to all around” the Sisters of Mercy have spent 187 years living in communities of contemplation and social action, responding to unmet needs in society with a radical spirit of mercy and compassion. The first six Sisters of Mercy in the U.S. arrived to Pittsburgh in 1843, where within just a few years they had fundraised for, built, and staffed a hospital, a school for young women, an orphanage, and more. Within the next decade new communities opened in New York City, Chicago, Little Rock, and San Francisco, where Sisters, often joining the order in their teens, showed up as needed. Cholera outbreak? Start a hospital. Civil War battlefield? Tend to all. Housing crisis? Start one of the nation’s largest affordable housing organizations.
A concise history of the order would fill several books—as could tales from the Burlingame campus alone. I cannot do justice to the story here. Let me just say that I don’t know of any other community that has created some of the largest-scale educational, healthcare, and housing infrastructure in the U.S. and holds the distinction of having been both praised by Abraham Lincoln and sung about by Leonard Cohen.
Currently, there are more than 2,900 Sisters of Mercy in the Americas and more than 9,000 from various congregations of the Sisters of Mercy worldwide. Their ministries vary greatly, but all sisters are united in their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and service and in their community’s focus on five issues of “critical concern”—care for the Earth, immigration, nonviolence, racism and women’s issues.
And, like most communities of Women Religious in the U.S., the Sisters of Mercy have fewer and fewer women (“novitiates”) entering the order. Across the U.S., the average age of a Catholic nun is 80.
Women Religious are surely used to surprise guests. Indeed, many orders have stories about starting orphanages after babies were left at the front door. Over the years, many have taken in refugees and asylees. But “you know it’s the work of Spirit when it comes through the side door…”
Sometimes you pray for new novitiates and three bearded men show up on your doorstep on a smoky November night.
The story of how and why I arrived to live in this convent for the next six months is surely bigger than one I can tell here—or even fully understand at this moment. Like any story, it’s part of a much larger and more mysterious puzzle of which the teller can see but one piece. What follows, then, is just a first, incomplete attempt to share some of the clues from my own experience.